Social net junkies…be wary of what you post online

If you thought posting the clip of you and your pals doing a Girl’s Gone Wild impression on YouTube was a cool idea – think again.

One of the viewers could turn out to be a potential employer, who may not be very impressed.

A recent survey by researchers at Toronto’s Ryerson University found glaring differences between how young social network site surfers view online privacy and the perceptions of corporate executives on that issue.

That said, however, the Ryerson study also doesn’t support the common view that corporate HR departments snoop on potential hires online.

Titled The Next Digital Divide: Online Social Network Privacy, the study queried more than 2,000 working students from various Canadian universities and executives from 16 large corporations on their online social networking habits and perceptions.

The study’s goal was to gain insight into the nature and scope of risk perception, motivation and concerns among those engaged in or exposed to online socializing.

“Young people think information posted online is private as long as it’s disseminated to their social network,” said Avner Levin, chair of the Law and Business Department at Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management.

Levin is also director of the university’s Privacy Institute.

Organizations, on the other hand, believe once information is posted online it is public and deserves no protection, said Levin.

The Ryerson academic said the study was partly inspired by an incident reported in the media about a year ago concerning a student who got into trouble for posting some disparaging comments on Facebook about a school official.

The student reasoned the online comments were part of a private conversation and no different from those that students have in the schoolyard.

School officials, Levin said, saw the episode as more of a public outburst.

“Was it mere naiveté or signs of a different set of mores?”

The study leans towards the latter view.

Of the young respondents, more than 90 per cent are members of Facebook and socialize regularly. However, only a little more than 40 per cent of the respondents reported actually reading or understanding the privacy policy of the online social network (OSN) site.

Interestingly, approximately 70 per cent of respondents said they adjusted the privacy settings on their profile and 54 per cent have blocked a specific person from accessing their page.

About three in 10 of the respondents said someone unknown to them had tried to access their network, but only 13 per cent of the youths actually contacted the site developers to report distasteful or disturbing content.

Levin said the sudden popularity of Web-based social networks has disrupted long-held ideas on privacy and is spawning a new set of rules.

In the physical world, a person can control the image of himself he presents to certain groups. “An individual might chose to exhibit a different personality or set of behaviour before his friends than he would before his employer or relatives.”

This sort of compartmentalization, Levin said, is negated on the Web.

“Much of what’s on the Internet is open to anyone. Even if you restrict your Facebook profile to only a chosen few, you have no control over what other people post about you.”

Content you previously thought was fine to post online can also be difficult, if not impossible, to take down or erase if someone else has copied and re-posted the material themselves.

Levin also warned social networking sites are, by law, not responsible for any damages brought upon individuals based on material posted on their site.

This was what a reality, the Ryerson professor said, which Levi Johnston, 18, the boyfriend of Bristol Palin, 17 (daughter of Republican vice-president candidate Sarah Palin), recently and painfully found out.

On his MySpace page, Johnston proudly declares: “I am a _____ redneck who would kick ass if anyone gave him trouble. I live to play hickey.”

In the part of the site where it asks about children, Johnston wrote: “I don’t want kids.”

Such an overt display “doesn’t mean the kid is actually a redneck, and was probably meant merely to convey a certain image for the benefit of a chosen social circle,” said Levin.

Still, the post was caught by media and subsequent reports of it brought pressure to Gov. Palin who is campaigning, in part, on a platform of family values.

What are the chances of your unwanted or embarrassing online photos or blogs being viewed by a potential employer?

The odds are about 50/50, according to Levin.

“Organizations are actually split right down the middle. Nearly half the executives said they would check candidates online and the other half said they wouldn’t bother.”

Many organizations, he said, rely on traditional methods such as contacting previous places of employment, checking schools or calling references. “It works for them and they’re satisfied with that.”

Levin, however said, youth in the study did not report experiencing such online background checks form employers.

The survey also indicates many organizations are still struggling with the issue of online social networking and need to exert more effort in making their policies about OSN use in the workplace known to their employees.

Only about 20 per cent of the respondents said the companies they work for have formal policies regarding OSN use in the workplace. Only about 10 per cent of those asked said their companies encouraged OSN use at work.

Among those who work for companies that prohibit OSN use, only 23 per cent said they abide by the policy.

This defiance just serves to illustrate that a lot of companies are behind the times, says another online communications expert.

“Companies should get with the program,” according to Jim Stanton, president of Stanton Associates a Vancouver-based communications consultancy and training firm specializing in online and collaborative media.

“The youth is steeped in online social networking technology and that is where companies should be if they want to attract and retain this talent pool,” he said.

Rather than strongly opposing social networks, Stanton said, business should explore how to incorporate the phenomena into their organization to improve productivity.

What can a jobseeker with some worrisome online presence do?

Don’t wait for a prospective employer to stumble on unflattering online content. Act proactively, said Stanton.

“Create an appropriate online image which highlights your strengths and talents then add the links to it on your resume.”

Here are some social networking do’s on don’ts for the jobseeker.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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